4. Leaving an Abusive Church

Article 4 on the series: The Hierarchy System of Church Government

4.  Leaving an Abusive Church


The first three articles in this series have been on recognizing the root causes of abusive churches. The 1st century Church did not follow any Hierarchy System of Church government, having a chain-of-command division between the clergy and the laity. Everyone served together for the common good of the Kingdom of God. No one was ranked as superior over another. The Hierarchy System of government, with a top-on-down superior rank order of structure, however, was part of Roman rule that was over the populace of the people during that period of time. Within thirty years of Pentecost, that same kind of thinking crept into the Church with the cultic practices of Docetism and a group called the Nicolaitans. The division between clergy and the laity, having a top-on-down superior rank of order was something that Jesus acknowledged in the Book of Revelation through the writings of the Apostle John as wrong behavior for the Church, and something emphasized that it was something that He hated. Sadly, this Hierarchy System of church government only grew with the development of Roman Catholicism and solidified when King Constantine became the Roman emperor in 325 A.D. In addition to being emperor, he took over the top position of all of the churches throughout the Roman Empire.

Today, there are basically three kinds of governmental systems in the Church-at-large: 1) Episcopal – where all local churches or denominations are ruled from a central point. Each has its headquarters and governing body regarding doctrine, discipline, and finances. Some of these churches follow the Hierarchy System of church government. 2) Presbyterian – where a group of men and women, chosen from within the congregation, rule in all matters. Some have a three-tier organization where the elders are over the pastor, meaning the pastor is a hired servant to the congregation rather than a spiritual leader. Most of these churches also have a central point over them to where they are accountable in areas of doctrine and finances. This form of governmental structure is less hierarchal. 3) Congregational – Every member has an equal say in church government, often having a governing central point over them to where they are held accountable in doctrine and finances, but are congregational in its structure.

The emergence of independent churches

In recent decades, independent churches have emerged, particularly in the charismatic realm, which are primarily inter-denominational or non-denominational in nature. They range from house churches, community churches, large and mega-large churches. Most of these churches are good churches, having a board and/or ministerial association over them to which they are responsible to their congregation in the doctrine and finances. There are, however, some churches which have chosen to follow the Episcopal form of church government as well as the Hierarchy System, but with a new twist. This new twist carries the belief that all Christians within the church MUST have a covering, claiming each individual must be in obedient submission to someone else; that is, each individual must be "covered" by another within the church. This implementation of a "covering" claims to protect individuals and the entire church from bad decisions and demonic infiltration. Through this chain of command, the people below are protected by those above. According to them, a spiritual covering is considered the divine pattern to maintain accountability. While seemingly new, these churches simply carry roots in the old, as history will validate. These churches are generally self-run under one head pastor, having ranks of authority under him or her, with the laity at the bottom. Each rank is submissive to the one above. Over time, however, some of higher ranks have changed into hyper-authoritarians, demonstrating egocentric leadership; thus, creating a church that has become a power machine of control and toxic cultic behavior. Elitism becomes the norm as it is modeled from the top on down and s piritual abuse is the result for those underneath. Sadly, these number of churches are growing at tremendous rates of speed as we enter into the 21st century. This is especially prevalent in large or mega-large independent churches where superpastors are viewed as ultra spiritual who can do no wrong. In addition, these churches that run on the “corporate” mindset only add fuel to the already damaging results within such a ministry. Run as a business, the people within the congregation end up serving the leadership instead of the leadership serving the people. Once this occurs, the organization takes on a self-serving mentality; meaning, whatever needs to be done to protect the ministry is legitimized and spiritualized.

Those who chose to leave a spiritually abusive church

Sadly, many will stay in such a destructive ministry. The longer they stay, however, the more wounded they become. Those who chose to leave are seen by those left in the church as disgruntled and divisive to the ministry. They are often used as scapegoats in private and public conversation, or even as nameless people in pulpit sermons. The congregation is told that contact with these disgruntled and division people would be considered as sinful gossip. “Leave them alone,” they are instructed. For fear of violating God’s commands, or not being considered loyal to their leaders, the congregation complies to the leadership’s wishes. Those who leave don’t want to admit that they are wounded; however, they are left on their own and often don’t know how to handle the emotions and scars that remain within them. Friends, and often family, who were once close to them in the congregation have now distanced themselves and the wounds keep multiplying.

This article purposes to help those who have left toxic churches so they can get back on track in their relationship with the Lord and find a solid Christian church where they feel loved by leaders who serve the Lord in humility and demonstrate respect for others.

Can abusive churches change?

It is unlikely that once spiritual abusive behavior sets in, the church will change. One reason is that change usually begins in the top leadership. If the leadership structure is designed so that the top leader, generally meaning the head pastor, has control over the staff and congregation, the likelihood of changing the entire structure of the church is rare. Since the head pastor appoints the board of directors, having only those who would be loyal and not question, or hold him or her accountable, the head pastor is then insulated from dealing with difficult issues or addressing unhealthy practices. They all live in a world of “denial.” They are usually so narcissistic or so focused on the great things they are doing “for God” that they don’t notice the wounds they are inflicting on their followers. [i]

Any change that would be needed must begin within the heart of the head pastor who must first acknowledge a problem and then repent of it. In a leadership who considers him or herself the spokesman for God will rarely be humbled to confess any shortcomings. In order for God to do a change in that person, the head pastor would need to publicly acknowledge him or herself accountable for all of the problems that came about because of his or her attitude and behavior to those underneath. That, they believe, then would taint the good name and image of the church.

The first step toward healing

Leaving an unhealthy church situation can leave some with deep scars. Those who leave an unhealthy church situation suffer isolation, bitterness, embarrassment, grief, and anger. It damages the central core of who a person is. It leaves one spiritually disorganized and emotionally cut off from the healing love of God. This is then coupled with confused emotions and wondering how God could have let it happen to them. Their purpose in life was so connected to the church, and they suddenly realized that their identify was based on their status and relationship in the church instead of who they are in Christ. The higher that one goes in the ministry of the abusive church, the deeper the scars of the abuse. Many are unable to trust anyone, including God, which only complicates the healing process. Trust, however, is essential, since developing healthy relationships is essential to the healing recovery process.

Understanding who is responsible for the abuse

Before healing can begin, it is important that the wounded understand that the senior pastor(s) of an abusive church is the one responsible for the abuse. He or she has the obligation before God and everyone that God has placed in his or her care to stay true to the biblical command to love and serve with heart of humility as he or she helps them grow and mature in the things of the Lord. When there is spiritual abuse going on, the blame should always be put upon the top leadership. Any pain and suffering that has been perpetuated upon paid staff, volunteers involved in ministry, and even congregate members, rest upon the leadership within the church. Even if the head pastor is unaware of individual situations brought on by other leaders in the church, the same spirit that perpetrated the situation has been filtered down from the top. While repentance and some form of restitution is always desired by the wounded, it must be understood that it may or may not ever happen. The important thing to note is that they will one day be held accountable to God.

It must also be remembered that God is always on the side of the wounded as they cry out for help. While God still loves the perpetrator(s), even when they have acted unjustly, a time will come when they will have to accept the responsibility for their actions. In addition, we must remember that God’s grace and mercy is upon all of His children. While the wounded, in their ignorance also sinned in their responses toward the abuse, God’s love and compassion reaches out to all. A good rule of thumb to remember is that generally, the abusers were at one time abused themselves in one fashion or another. 2

Admittance of spiritual abuse in the wounded

The initial reaction of someone who has left an abusive church is anger and denial of any wounds inflicted upon them. In their anger, they purpose to never attend any such church again. Often, however, if they do not seek help, they will find another church similar to the one they left, only to have the cycle begin all over again. Then there will be those who have been so beaten down and will avoid getting involved in any church for fear of the abuse beginning again. As such, they give up on the church all together and will stay wounded. Sadly, the realization of spiritual digression goes unrecognized by many because it is overshadowed by the anger for the ministry they just left. Because they do not follow the scriptural mandate to be connected to a body of believers, they backslide even further in their faith, even to the point of unbelief. As such, they risk losing their eternal salvation. The wise ones, however, will first recognize the abuse and the anger they hold, and then upon exiting an abusive church, they will take the time to get healed so that cycle will stop. The ultimate goal for them is not vengeance, but healing of their wounds and finding another church which preaches truth in a setting where they can feel loved by leaders who serve in honest love and humility.

Understanding God’s love

Those wounded who exit a church feel great pain due to the mistreatment they received, especially if they were part of the paid staff or heavily involved in volunteer ministry. The longer one has stayed and the higher up in leadership one attained, the scars generally penetrated deeper. Trust injuries cut deeply and leave agonizing scars. The “process of healing” then becomes an issue that involves changing one’s perspective, allowing forgiveness to take place, and that takes time. Wounded people leaving a church need to know that they are loved and cared for by God. They need to know that He is ever at work to help them recover from the wounds they have received. Being in the middle of an abusive situation brings hurt and anger; however, time away from the abuse will help put things into perspective as the Holy Spirit reveals and gives the power to forgive. The longer a person is away from the abuse, the more clearly one can see to put the abuse in its proper perspective, and the happier one becomes to be away from such travesties.

Support groups

One of the first feelings of leaving an abusive church is abandonment. For fear of being considered disloyal to their leaders, many within an abusive church cut off all ties of friendship with those who leave. Just as sad, those who leave cut off all ties with friends and loved ones within the church out of fear of being shunned or abandoned by them. The natural tendency then is isolation for fear of getting hurt even further. This only creates more wounds in the already wounded victims who have left an abusive church.

It has always been God’s desire for His wounded children to be healed. He is continuously at work to help them recover. One way God can do a work of healing is through supportive groups. Handled in the proper way, support groups can be part of God’s plan for the healing of the wounded. It is a godly thing for those feeling abandonment to group together to work toward their healing.

Often when one leaves an abusive church, others have left as well. In a church where there is an exodus of several leaving, gathering together as a support group can be very helpful. Gathering together as a bashing session against the leaders of the abusive church, however, should not be the goal, but the healing of the wounds inflicted should become the priority of the group. Such groups emphasize being open and honest with the feelings they carry. Honest expressions of emotions are encouraged for the healing process to begin. Initially, people “need” to tell their stories, vent, assess, grieve, and then pray. By doing so, it helps the wounded to first of all know they are not alone, which then handled in the right way allows the release of pain, giving “full voice” to their complaint. Emotions will vary from angry responses, weeping, or even happiness because they are no longer part of such an abusive ministry. Healing can also take place by asking “tough questions” within the group regarding abuses that have taken place. Healing can further be promoted by hearing a particular scripture verse during the meetings that ministers life, comments from others in the group, whether it is within the confines of the meeting, or in general conversation during times of fellowship. The important thing is that expression be allowed as the healing process takes place through the power of the Holy Spirit within each believer and within the group. These godly encounters are important to give the proper perspective to those in need. How long this process takes is an individual matter. It could take place within a few months, or even take several years. Be assured that a day will come when you will come to the point of forgiveness, as well as pity and compassion for those leaders, along with their victim followers, who are so blind that they cannot see the wounds they inflict upon others.

Often the support group begins as a Bible study or prayer group where everyone can search the Word of God for answers and pray together for healing. It then becomes an avenue to develop new friends from old acquaintances as everyone purposes to continue their healing process. As time continues, and the pain is released, the group develops an openness with each other, allowing trust in others to be restored, and then the group can have a solid biblical foundation for “assembling together” as was done in the 1st century church.

Individual counseling

Individual counseling may be a little more difficult since the trust level in church leadership has been diminished. Christian counselors who have been trained in abuses within the church, however, should be sought out to deal with the negative inner feelings so the wounded can get back on track emotionally and spiritually. An understanding of a healthy faith community needs to be taught which promotes healthy self esteem, sound biblical truths, supportive relationships, commonality with other believers, and how to effectively give service back to the community again, while they serve one another as Scripture commands. 3 Through the pain and healing process, God can then mold them to become more like Christ as He heals them from not only the abuse within the church they just left, but heals them of other things that may have prevented them from becoming all that God has called them to be or do. As Christian counselors work with those who are spiritual wounded, they may even recommend certain supportive groups to join as well. It is there that new Christian relationships can be developed. Eventually, the search for a new church can be a healthy search because the fear element of trust has been eliminated.

Ministering out to others

Christians sometimes are uncomfortable to give criticism to those who are caught in the web of abuse within the abusive church. In an effort to point out error, the fear of being divisive, spreading gossip, is believed as unbiblical and therefore a sin. It must be remembered that if confrontation is done with a pure heart - to point out biblical error, which is correct, and has been thoroughly researched to substantial its truth, it is not only biblical, it can have a healing effect on those who are caught in its web, providing they are opened to receive. If those caught in the web do not receive, however, it is important that you stop immediately with the confrontation, because it will only be seen as divisive.

As the wounded person becomes healed, the scars that remain will keep one humble and grateful. At that point, God can then use them to minister healing to others who are in need. Those whom God then sends - those who are struggling to leave the web of deceit and spiritual abuse - will be ready to hear what you have to say. As a result, they will be eager and ready to receive healing. Your ministry to them will produce healing, while you encourages individual growth, and ultimately, one-by-one, you will preserve the church’s reputation in the world.

1 Tim 4:16 Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. NIV

Eph 4:15… speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. NIV

Finding a healthy church

Scripture must be our guide

As in anything in life, Scripture is meant to always be our guide. Our standard is truth, and Scripture is our judge. Church governmental structure should be no different. All Christian leaders should be following New Testament examples to lead the Church in the way that Scripture has shown us. Christ is the head of the Church, and there should be no division between cleric and laity, or even such things as having a central point of governmental structure in place. The 1st century church gives us a good example of how church should be run. Everyone served together for the common good of the Kingdom of God. No one was ranked as superior over another, having no distinction between cleric and laity. While each believer had a function with various gifts and callings in the Body of Christ, no one was considered superior over another .

House churches were the norm within 1st century Christianity. The 21st century churches have made a pivotal change with the return of house churches and small churches as more large or mega-large toxic churches crop up with abusive pastors. Those who have been wounded guard against being involved in a large or mega-large ministry for fear of future abuse happening again. This doesn’t mean that it is wrong to attend a large or mega-large church; it is wrong, however, to attend one that is run on the Hierarchy System of church government. For those churches who are run on that kind of church government, along with the corporate mindset and the practice of a “spiritual covering,” attending there simply becomes an open invitation to be abused again.

Questions to ask yourself when shopping for a church home

Finding a healthy church home means you will need to do some investigative work. While some churches look good on the surface to ordinary church shoppers, it is important to know what happens underneath the glee and the glitter. It is those things that will form the decision of whether you should attend that church. Just know, that any investigative work will take time; however, that time will be well worthwhile.

There are three areas to examine when researching out a new church home – doctrinal, ministry opportunities, and behavioral actions. The following are key things and questions you need to ask and answer when you are searching for a new church home.


  • Examine the church’s doctrinal statement of faith. Does it comply with the New Testament criteria for setting up a church?
  • Regularly, for a minimum of six weeks, sit under the teachings of the senior pastor. Critically analyze his or her teachings in light of scriptural truths. If there is something you don’t understand, don’t be afraid to set up an appointment with the pastor to question the teaching. Again, the answers must line up with the Word of God in context and its entirety. Often pastors teach in series. You may then need to sit under several series to gain a solid knowledge of the doctrinal beliefs of the church.
  • Never be afraid to ask questions regarding anything that was preached from the pulpit that you either don’t understand or you question. Again, validate everything with the Word of God.
  • If the church has membership classes where you can learn more about it, asking questions without having to join the church, you are encouraged to attend.
  • Don’t become members of a church until you know in your heart that the doctrines follow the Word of God according to New Testament teachings. Ask yourself - Do you know that it is a place where you and your family can grow and mature in the things of God? You need to be led by the Spirit of God.

Multi-faceted ministries and opportunities

Often people join a church because of the ministry opportunities available to them and their family. While these are important issues to look at, they are not the criteria for joining a church. If they are, a day may come when you and your family may need to exit that church and start over again. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can the ministry opportunities be a source of spiritual growth to you and your family members?
  • Are there ministries there that you and your family can feel loved, respected, and accepted?
  • How do you view the leadership within the ministries of choice? Are they spiritually mature? Are they humble servants for the Lord?
  • Are there future opportunities for you and your family to fulfill your gifts and callings.

Behavioral practices

While most of the behavioral practices that you need to be aware of have been listed within the four articles in this series, the following is a recap for you to observe and ask yourself:

  • Find out the governmental structure of the church. If it is on the Hierarchy System of church government, leave the church.
  • Ask questions about the board of directors, and examine how the leaders under the pastor conduct themselves. Are they “yes” people to the pastor or is there warm open dialog going on between all of them.
  • Find out the system of accountability within the church. You need to ask whether the pastor keeps full control? If so, know there is a danger of the possibility of spiritual abuse.
  • Does the church have a solid ministerial organization that teaches biblical practices in which the church is held accountable?
  • Are financial records public to the congregation?
  • Does the pastor’s personal life demonstrate responsible stewardship in all financial matters, or does he or she live a life of luxury while those in the congregation struggle to support such a lifestyle?
  • If the church is in a building program, has its focus become the central point of pulpit preaching?
  • Look at how you and others in the congregation view the pastor and his or her top leaders. Do you see elitism or do you see humility within the pastor and the other leaders within the church?
  • Do you see the whole of the church as a division between clergy and laity, or do you see servant leadership within the church and everyone working together as “one” for the Kingdom of God?
  • Is the pastor reachable, or does he or she seem untouchable to those within the congregation?
  • How do you view the personal relationship with the Lord in the pastor and other leaders in the church?
  • Is the senior pastor above reproach? Is he viewed as a moral, upright person within the church and in the community?
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Those questions can range from organizational structure to doctrinal beliefs. If they are warmly received, continue your research within that church. If they are scorned, leave immediately.
  • Do you see an openness within the congregation members to freely ask questions?
  • Is critical or independent thinking encouraged within the church, allowing “tough questions” to be answered? Or is unity defined as conformity to the leadership wishes?
  • Is the church preoccupied with maintaining a good public image over admittance of error?
  • Is the church involved with other churches in the community to foster relations and connections to “serve the Body of Christ” on a larger scale?
  • Look at those heavily involved in ministry. Are they experiencing burn-out? Do they carry the attitude that to gain approval or prove they are “true disciples,” they need to be involved in more ministry?
  • Is the family held in high esteem, even over serving in ministry?
  • Do you feel a kindred spirit with the pastor and leaders within the church? Do you feel comfortable and at home in the church.

If you can honestly answer all of the above questions in a responsible manner that you know is correct, you probably have found a new church home. If not, you need to continue your search. Just remember, God does have a place for you in the Body of Christ where you can feel loved, accepted, respected, trusting, growing in your faith, and be a part of the church to fulfill your gifts and callings.

End Notes

[i] Zukeran, Patrick. Abusive Churches: Leaving Them Behind. 1995. Probe Ministries. www.probe.org/docs/abuse-ch2.html.
2. http://www.shatteredtrust.com
3. http://www.barnabasministry.com/recovery-yeast-cumella.html

Written by Pastor Joyce A. Erickson

Believers Bible School, Founder https://believersbibleschool.com/